I suspect if you checked Putin’s playbook for the Ukraine invasion, it would be stale-dated by at least six decades — and possibly more.
Putin wants territory. This invasion is a land grab. And his justification, outlined in a speech he gave on February 21, is that Ukraine was never really a country, it was just an orphaned part of Russia that should be brought back home, by force if necessary:
“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said, per the Kremlin’s official translation. “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.”
Those words sound eerily familiar. In fact, here’s another passage that follows exactly the same logic:
“German-Austria must return to the great German motherland, and not because of economic considerations of any sort. No, no: even if from the economic point of view this union were unimportant, indeed, if it were harmful, it ought nevertheless to be brought about. Common blood belongs in a common Reich.”
That was written in 1925 by Adolf Hitler, while in prison. It’s an excerpt from “Mein Kampf.” Thirteen years later, Hitler brought Austria back to Germany with the Anschluss, under threat of invasion.
Both strategies — which are essentially the same strategy — come from the nationalism handbook. Despite knee-jerk spasms of alt-right nationalism that have appeared around the globe, including here in North America, I must believe that our world is not the same as it was a century ago.
Then, nationalism was still very much THE play in the political play book. Power was derived from holding territory. The more you held, the greater your power. The world was anchored by the physical, which provided both resources and constraints.
You protected what you held by fortified borders. You restricted what went back and forth across those borders. The interests of those inside the borders superseded whatever lay outside them.
Trade was a different animal then. It occurred within the boundaries of an empire. Colonies provided the raw resources to the Mother Country. But two world wars decisively marked the end of that era.
The McDonald’s Theory of War
After that, the globe was redefined. Nations coalesced into trading blocs. Success came from the ease of exchange across borders. Nationalism was no longer the only game in town. In fact, it seemed to be a relic of a bygone era. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an essay in 1996 that put forward a new theory: “So I’ve had this thesis for a long time and came here to Hamburger University at McDonald’s headquarters to finally test it out. The thesis is this: No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”
It was a nice theory, but the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems to have put the final nail in its coffin. Both countries have hundreds of McDonald’s. Even Thomas Friedman has had to note that his theory may no longer be valid.
Or is it? Perhaps this will be the exception that proves Friedman right.
In essence, the global economy is a network that relies on trust. If Friedman was right about his theory, repeated in his 2005 book “The World is Flat,” the world is not only flat, it’s also surprisingly small. To trade with another country, you don’t have to be best friends, you just have to make sure you don’t get stabbed in the back. And to be sure of that, you have to know who you’re dealing with.
China is an example. Politically, we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but there is a modicum of trust that allows us to swap several billion dollars’ worth of stuff every year. The trick of trade is to know where that line is where you piss off your partner to the point where they pack up their toys and go home.
Putin just rolled his tanks right over that line. He has doubled down on the bet that nationalism is still a play that can win. But if it does, it will reverse a historic trend that has been centuries in the making — a trend toward cooperation and trust, and away from protectionism and parochial thinking.
This is a war that — initially, anyway — seems to be playing out unlike any war in the past.
It’s being covered differently. As Maarten Albarda, poignantly shared, we are getting reports directly from real people living through a unreal situation.
It is being fought differently. Nations and corporations are economically shunning Russia and its people. Russian athletes have been banned from international sporting events. We have packed up our toys and gone home.
We are showing our support for Ukraine differently. As one example, thousands of people are booking Airbnbs in Ukraine with no intention of ever going there. It’s just one way to leverage a tool to funnel funds directly to people who need it.
And winning this war will also be defined differently. Even if Putin is successful in annexing Ukraine, he will have isolated himself on the world stage. He will have also done the impossible: unified the West against him. He has essentially swapped whatever trust Russia did have on the world stage for territory. By following an out-of-date playbook, he may end up with a win that will cost Russia more that it could ever imagine.